Fetal learning with ethanol: Correlations between maternal hypothermia during pregnancy and neonatal responsiveness to chemosensory cues of the drug

Paula Abate, M. Yanina Pepino, Norman E. Spear, Juan C. Molina

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Fetuses learn about ethanol odor when the drug is present in the amniotic fluid. Prenatal learning comprising ethanol's chemosensory cues also suggests an acquired association between ethanol's chemosensory and postabsorptive properties. Ethanol-related thermal disruptions have been implicated as a significant component of the drug's unconditioned properties. In the present study, ethanol-induced thermal changes were analyzed in pregnant rats subjected to a moderate ethanol dose. This thermal response was later tested for its correlation with the responsiveness of the progeny to ethanol and nonethanol chemosensory stimuli. Methods: During gestational day (GD) 14, pregnant rats were subjected to a minor surgical procedure to place a subcutaneous telemetric thermal sensor in the nape of the neck. During GDs 17 to 20, females received a daily intragastric administration of ethanol (2 g/kg) or water, using solutions kept at room temperature. Maternal body temperatures were recorded before and after (4 consecutive hours) the administration of water or ethanol. Newborns representative of both prenatal treatments were tested in terms of behavioral activity elicited by the smell of ethanol or of a novel odorant (cineole). A third group of pups were tested in response to unscented air stimulation. Results: Ethanol administration during late gestation induced reliable maternal hypothermia, a thermal disruption greater than that observed in water-treated females. It was systematically observed that maternal ethanol-induced hypothermia negatively correlated with neonatal motor reactivity elicited by ethanol olfactory stimulation. No other significant correlations were observed in terms of responsiveness to cineole or to unscented air in animals prenatally exposed to ethanol or water. Conclusions: In conjunction with prior research, the present results indicate that fetal ethanol exposure may yield learning of an association between ethanol's sensory and unconditioned properties. Ethanol-induced hypothermia during late gestation seems to represent a significant component of ethanol's unconditioned consequences. Specifically, ethanol-related thermal disruptions in the womb are highly predictive of neonatal responsiveness to ethanol's chemosensory cues that are known to be processed by the near-term fetus.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)805-815
Number of pages11
JournalAlcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2004
Externally publishedYes


  • Amniotic fluid
  • Chemosensory cues
  • Chemosensory stimuli
  • Ethanol
  • Thermal disruptions

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine (miscellaneous)
  • Toxicology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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